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Collar those cowboys

by Manoj Mitta, 1 December 2011

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The Times of India

November 27, 2011

The unraveling of the Ishrat Jahan case last week came close on the heels of the convictions for the Sardarpura massacre, the first of the eight post-Godhra riot cases being monitored by the Supreme Court. Narendra Modi’s legal troubles are not only for the carnage that took place on his watch in 2002 but also for the series of mysterious killings of those who had allegedly sought to take revenge on him or fallen out with him in the wake of the riots.

Irrespective of whether these setbacks affect him politically, the legal outlook for Modi in the upcoming election year in Gujarat seems grim. Consider the cases that have acquired momentum in recent months, laying bare the rampant misuse of the police to stir the communal cauldron from time to time in a state that has long been dubbed as a laboratory of Hindutva.

If Tihar Jail in Delhi has seen an unprecedented number of politicians being incarcerated for corruption, Gujarat is gaining notoriety for the procession of police officers detained in connection with fake encounters. The trend began with the arrests made in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case in April 2007. The fresh FIR due be registered in the Ishrat case may throw some more uniformed personnel into jail.

The arrests in the Sohrabuddin case were thanks to the Supreme Court’s monitoring , while the fake encounter of Ishrat came to light because of the combined vigilance of the apex court and the Gujarat high court. And, despite several hiccups, a special investigation team (SIT) set up by the high court eventually uncovered the truth, vindicating its innovation of letting victims have a say in the composition of the team.The SIT discovered that the Ishrat encounter was fake given the mismatch between, among other things, the bullet shells and the weapons claimed to have been used.

The Sohrabuddin and Ishrat cases are not the only encounters that have come under the scanner. The police had altogether claimed to have busted about 20 jihadi plots to assassinate Modi, from the aftermath of the riots to the arrests in the Sohrabuddin case. Five months ago, the high court entrusted the CBI with the first of those encounter killings: Sadiq Jamal was shot dead in January 2003.

Similarly, in April, the Supreme Court caused another embarrassment to the Modi regime by ordering the CBI to take over the fake encounter killing of Tulsiram Prajapati, who had allegedly been bumped off in 2006, about a year after he had witnessed Sohrabuddin meeting a similar fate. Though the Gujarat police had already filed a chargesheet in the matter, the apex court went by the CBI allegation that they had steered clear of the complicity of Modi’s then home minister , Amit Shah. It was reminiscent of Sohrabuddin’s encounter as both he and Prajapati had been allegedly killed on Shah’s instructions. While the CBI probe into the Prajapati encounter is going on, Shah’s counsel Ram Jethmalani, in a desperate bid to prevent his bail from being cancelled, has questioned the very bona fides of the Supreme Court which in January 2010 transferred the Sohrabuddin case from the Gujarat police to the CBI. The apex court asked the Centre on November 25 to respond to Jethmalani’s allegation that the January 2010 order was the result of a political conspiracy hatched by the Congress party to corner the BJP.

More specifically, the allegation is that the head of the bench, Justice Tarun Chatterjee , who has since retired from the Supreme Court, allegedly obliged the Centre for saving him from the CBI in charging him with complicity in the Ghaziabad provident fund scam. The transfer of the Sohrabuddin case to the CBI proved fateful as it led to Shah’s arrest. He is the second Modi minister to have been arrested on the murder charge; the first being Maya Kodnani, though that was in connection with the riots.

Meanwhile, the FIR due to be registered in the Ishrat Jahan case may prove embarrassing to the R K Raghavan-headed SIT set up by the Supreme Court to probe nine high profile Godhra and post-Godhra cases under its monitoring. For, one of the police officers figuring as an accused in the Ishrat Jahan case, D H Goswamy, had been inducted into Raghavan’s SIT as investigating officer in the Gulberg and Naroda Patiya cases.

Modi, too, has cause to be concerned about Raghavan’s SIT as it had been directed by the Supreme Court in September to file a final report on Zakia Jafri’s complaint . She, incidentally, is the widow of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was burnt to death in Gulberg Society. The SIT has also been asked to take into account amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran’s view which favoured filing of charges against him and other members of his regime in connection with the riots.

The irony is that the Centre, too, has been discomfited by some of the developments in Modi-related cases. After all, the Union home ministry under P Chidambaram had told the high court in 2009 that it did not consider the Ishrat Jahan case "fit for investigation by the CBI."

A greater quandary faced by the Centre relates to the high court’s acquittal on August 29 of all the accused in the Haren Pandya murder case (see box). The CBI had conducted the probe which has been declared by the high court as "botched up and blinkered" . Modi-related cases have ended up embarrassing policemen, judges and political leaders, one way or the other, from Ahmedabad to New Delhi.

Pandya case: assassination or terror crime?

The murder weapon was recovered . An eyewitness dared to testify in a terror case. The accused confessed under Pota. The confluence of such evidences, sure enough, had helped the prosecution secure conviction of 12 men for the murder of Haren Pandya, former minister who had fallen out with Narendra Modi. Yet, three months ago, the Gujarat high court acquitted all the accused, therefore reviving the conspiracy theory that Pandya’s murder was a political assassination rather than a terror crime.

Whatever the truth, the high court had compelling reasons to disbelieve the prosecution story. Pandya was sitting in the driver’s seat in his Maruti 800 just after parking the car to go for a morning walk. Asghar Ali allegedly shot Pandya with a revolver from point blank range through a three-inch gap in the window and ran away. But one of the injuries recorded by the forensic report shows that a bullet entered his body through the lower part of the left scrotum and journeyed diagonally upwards to the back of the right chest muscle.

This and other such glaring contradictions were overlooked by the CBI when it filed the charge sheet during the NDA reign. The dilemma facing UPA II is whether it should allow the CBI to appeal against the high court verdict or endorse the application made by widow Jagruti Pandya for a further investigation of the case.

P.S.

The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use